The first half hour of Lucy Walker’s HBO documentary The Crash Reel is pure adrenaline rush, like an X Games montage put together by an editor who had prepared for his work by enjoying a bowl of Cap’n Crunch soaked in Jolt Cola. Walker draws on home-movie footage to show, not tell, how Kevin Pearce, a blond, toothy kid from Vermont, with a big family—mom, dad, four boys in all—discovered extreme winter sports as an outlet for his boundless physical energy and followed his older brothers Adam, Andrew, and David into snowboarding. (Their father, Simon, is a well-known glass artist.) The archive material shades into TV sports footage as Kevin enters his twenties and begins to compete at a professional level. Shaun White is seen telling an interviewer that it was Adam he was expecting to see in his rear-view mirror, until “Kevin came out of left field and did the younger-brother move.”
As images of Kevin hurtling through the winter air alternates with scenes of victory celebrations and interviews with people talking about what a great guy Kevin is, a heroic (and marketable) narrative emerges: Kevin was taken up as the anti-Shaun White by fans and fellow athletes who wanted to see the great ginger whale taken down a peg or two. Things get personal between the two of them when Shaun “got salty” about coming in second to Kevin at the Nippon Open and trashed his hotel room with a fire extinguisher; they got personal with White and much of the rest of the planet after his sponsor, Red Bull, spent something in the area of two million dollars to carve him out his own personal pipeline in a remote section of the Colorado mountains, so he could train for the 2010 Winter Olympics unobserved by lesser mortals. Subsequently, Kevin got his own pipeline, but welcomed friends and well-wishers who wanted to visit and use it. Describing the difference between the two superstars, someone says, “Kevin was like a friend, and Shaun’s this machine-athlete that his one goal only, to win.”
The film’s capsule history of Kevin Pearce’s life in sport is exciting, but so fast and upbeat that it may seem shallow. Then, with the Olympics looming, Kevin suffers a traumatic brain injury during final training, landing hard on his face in what’s called “a perfect storm of falls,” and as the action shifts to hospitals and rehab facilities, it becomes clear that walker knows what she’s doing. By putting the viewer right inside Kevin’s pounding heart as he tastes the thrill of victory, mixed with the considerable satisfaction of rubbing a former friend’s face in it, she makes it easy to understand where Kevin is coming from when he finally awakens from his coma and can only think about getting back on his board. The pictures of Kevin at the accident scene and in his hospital bed are all you need to understand why his family reacts with horror to this idea. Recalling her first sight of her son after the accident, his mother recalls that “The nurse said, ‘It’s okay to touch him,’ and it’s really lucky she said that, because I wouldn’t have known.”
Once Kevin is up and about, the real drama of the film lies in seeing him trying to talk himself into believing that he could still be what he used to be, and the family’s efforts to persuade that it’s possible for him to be something else—that it doesn’t mean that his life is over. Kevin tries to persuade his family otherwise, but that’s a non-starter. When he and his parents discuss his future with his rehab specialist, the key question for Kevin is, “How hard can I hit my head?” While the specialist tries very hard not to look at him funny, Kevin’s father mutters, “You must really like it here.” When everyone is assembled at dinner, Kevin tries to make them understand how important it is that he get back out there by likening the feeling he gets to the feeling his father gets when he’s blowing glass. His father suggests that what Kevin feels may be more in the nature of “an addiction.” He also asks Kevin, “How many football players who’ve had traumatic brain injuries come back and win the Super Bowl?” There may be no sadder and surprising moment in The Crash Reel than when Kevin replies, “How many?” He’s prepared to believe that the number might be higher than zero.
The Crash Reel isn’t an anti-sports polemic, but it does raise questions about how much unnecessary risk has become a part of sports, thanks in part to the media and competing sponsors, and the rivalries they encourage. One of the snowboarders who is seen expressing her dread that Kevin might ever try to compete again is Sarah Burke, who died last year after experiencing a traumatic brain injury while trying to perform the same trick Kevin was attempting when he had his accident, in the same place. She left behind a fortune in medical bills; she was participating in an event that her sponsor, an energy drink, had set up, but she wasn’t insured because it wasn’t sanctioned by the sports association. When Walker supplies this information and then cuts to a TV announcer solemnly eulogizing Burke with the words, “It’s been said that the brave do not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all,” you want to hit him with a brick.
If The Crash Reel has a moral, it may be that there’s heroism in caution, especially in a culture that professes to have nothing but disdain for it. Sounding perplexed, Kevin recalls that, long before he had his accident, he dreamed of having some terrible setback that he could come back from. That’s not surprising, given that it’s the template for slightly less than half of the sports movies and novels ever written, the half that aren’t about having it all and being permanently struck down by some incurable, wasting disease. (About all that’s left are Ring Lardner stories and Ron Shelton movies.) It’s an appealing fantasy for all the armchair jocks who like to think that, if they could only win the lottery, they could quit their job and go to the gym full-time and then show Peyton Manning how it’s done.
Kevin’s family doesn’t want him to be the Roy Hobbs of snowboarding; as his brother David tells him to his face, they just want him not to die. (The rehab specialist tells Kevin and his parents that very few people come back from two concussions. In a sequence showing snowboarders talking about their history of injuries, Shaun White says that he’s had nine concussions. He makes it clear that he’s paying tribute to his helmet, without which, he says, he’d be dead. But it’s hard not to also hear a boastful subtext: If you’ve got the real stuff, you can shake it off and walk away smiling.) At times, it seems to be a case of Kevin’s family against the world. When, about a year after his accident, he visits a school to talk to the quiz, the first question he’s asked is, “Do you think you could have beat Shaun White?” As Kevin admits himself, it’s a good question.